What’s ‘quac?’ Good Mexican food
Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 10, 2010
As the interloper on my mother’s articles, I typically recount exotic travels and the foods found in those lands afar. This is similar but slightly less unusual. Some of you might not have been to Mexico or Belize, but you certainly have had Mexican food. This past Christmas was my first time to our Southern neighbor. I flew to Cozumel the day after leaving the cardiac care unit in the hospital in which I work. It was a sharp change from heart attacks to sun and sandy beaches.
Cozumel was amazing for its diving- sea turtles, multicolored sea fans and shimmering schools of fish. The food was also decent but not really anything to write about. However, the Beach House Hostel, where I stayed (and was a fantastic deal) had a good cook who added avocado to every breakfast. I found that avocado is like bacon – it’s good on everything. There is nothing more luscious than fresh, ripe avocado. We bastardize it into some green paste and put it in a tub. If you can find a store with decent avocado, use the beautiful slices to smooth a turkey sandwich, to add depth to a salad or augment your own Mexican meal.
At virtually every restaurant in Cozumel and in the other cities in Mexico I visited, I was served salsa and chips with my meal. These were not the greasy bag chips and mushy factory packed salsa to which we are so accustomed. Every establishment made their own salsa – simply chopped onion, garlic, tomato, cilantro and occasionally a green bell pepper. The salsa is piquant and extremely refreshing. Admittedly, the more I had it, day after day, it got a little old, but that’s not to say that I could keep my hands off of it.
One thing I noted throughout my trip through Mexico and Belize was the minimal use of cheese. I could live on cheese alone but I found that when the main ingredients were done right, I didn’t notice the lack of the gooey fat melted all over my meal. One of the only things I ate with cheese was a delicious bus stop treat. When traveling back from Belize City to Cancun, we stopped at a terminal in Mexico and vendors were swarming with a version of empanadas. Essentially, these tasty roadside nibbles were a large round tortilla chip with a small spread of beef or chicken, covered with another chip that was smeared with a dollop of refried beans, a dash of pickled onions and a sprinkle of queso fresco. They weren’t hot and the tortillas were squishy but they were yummy. Queso fresco is a mild white cheese with a little salty tang found cheaply at Mexican stores and in some regular grocery stores.
I think that some of the best meals are the unexpected like the pseudo-empanadas in a bus stop. Another such random meal was my first in Belize. I made it to Chetumal, the main border town entry between Mexico and Belize on in the early evening of Dec. 26. Once I arrived, I found that there were to be no more buses out that evening. I had reservations for that night and the next at an inn in Orange Walk, Belize.
I ended up staying at a dingy but passable hostel across the road from the bus station and the next day got up at 5 a.m. to get to the ticket counter to nab the first ticket out of Mexico. With my inn in Orange Walk, I had arranged a set tour up the New River to see some ancient Mayan sites. Given my limited budget, that $40 tour was important. I got on a 6:30 a.m. bus that I thought would stop in Orange Walk (OW). About 30 minutes into the ride, I came to understand that we would not stop in OW, and I would be going two to three hours out of my way to Belize City only to have to double back to OW to do the tour I wanted. And I had booked the inn, which would undoubtedly charge me. Somehow, in our Spanglish, the driver of the bus communicated to me that I could take a taxi on the Belize side and be in Orange Walk in 40 minutes. I had paid a pittance ($10) for a five-hour bus ride to Belize City so maybe I could splurge on the taxi. I paid much more than I would in other circumstances, but my kindly bus driver found me a sweet English speaking taxi driver who took me to OW in no time flat.
I even got to Orange Walk early for my tour so I was able to check in and clean up. I asked the receptionist about some place to get breakfast (it was still 7:45 a.m.) and she told me to walk down the street. The first stall was her favorite. Unbeknownst to me, it was a Belizean holiday so my guidebook restaurants were not available and was also the reason for the bus mix-ups. I walked down the street from the Orchid Palm Inn and found an open market sort of clearing with several carts in front. I went to the first cart as instructed. All I saw were two pots, a hot circle plate and some tortillas. I didn’t have any clue how to order but the old lady who had been chatting with her friends, got up off the sidewalk wall and asked me if I wanted beef or chicken. As I mentioned, I don’t speak Spanish but sometimes you just kind of “get it.” I said “beef” and then she said, “how many.” I didn’t know what I was getting so I said two. She tossed two blue corn tortillas onto the hot plate and opened one of the two pots and stirred. The stuff in the pot looked like beef. After a second or two she scooped up a piece of newspaper, a tortilla and layered on a spoonful of the beef mixture. I didn’t understand what she said next, but I believed it involved some sort of hot sauce so I said, “un poco” (a little). She lithely spooned on some pickled veg, mainly consisting of onion and then a dollop of red sauce that did in fact turn out to be hot sauce. She did that a second time and I took my wrapped treasures back to my inn. I bought a coke on the way and in the 30 minutes I had in peace between the madness of finally getting to Orange Walk and my river tour, I languished over those two tasty soft cigar sized beefy tangy rolls. I needed the coke; they were spicy.
One of my other good meals was just several hours later. I took a river boat, essentially a small speed boat with eight other passengers and a driver down rivers and coves up to the ruins of the last known surviving Mayan civilization at Lamanai. We curled through the narrow, criss-crossing water passages with the spray rippling up my arm for an hour and a half. We saw spider and howler monkeys, crocodiles, and some strikingly beautiful birds. We lingered out in the middle of a large inlet and pondered at the top of the tallest part of Lamanai; stone ruins still visible over the jungle hundreds of years after construction. Since we arrived at noon, we ate picnic style before we encountered the sites. Though I was fairly sated with my breakfast beef tortillas, I couldn’t help but indulge in the meal they brought – red beans and rice, spice baked chicken, a unique type of potato salad, a pickle mixture for who knows what and a shredded salad. I am a little hesitant towards beans and rice since eating them every day for the weeks I have spent in Haiti (and then having my mother cook them the day we got back on one occasion, as a joke). But, red beans and rice can be amazing. I don’t know the secret but I am sure it must involve fat. The soft beans and rice with a smooth rich flavor can really boost a meal even in the direst of circumstances. At our simple picnic, this was the case. The beans and rice and the spicy skin-on baked in oil chicken really made a homey meal.
5+ LAYER DIP
Though not truly Mexican or Belizean, this is a simple dip that encompasses some of the refreshing qualities of authentic Mexican cuisine conveniently in one dish. You can use this in a variety of ways and there are myriad modifications. You can serve this at Super Bowl Parties with chips or as a side to a nice grilled fish or meat to make a one tub taco topping, if your family is agreeable. Otherwise, you can separate out the components to set-up a “make your own taco bar.”
2-3 large ripe tomatoes
1 small onion
1 bunch cilantro
1 head garlic
¼ green bell pepper (optional)
1 can refried beans, black or pinto
2 fresh avocados
Queso fresco or other cheese (sharp cheddar, mozzarella for mild tastes work well)
1 small tub sour cream (use low fat and you won’t know the difference)
1 lb of hand chopped beef, chicken or turkey, if desired. Note: If you choose to use meat in the dip to make it a six layer dip, use a fajita or chili spice and follow packet directions.
If you have a blender, chop 2-3 tomatoes crudely and add roughly chopped onion, 4 cloves garlic, a handful of cilantro, juice of 1 lime, a dash of EVOO and bell pepper (optional). Roughly chop salsa ingredients and put aside. This can all be done by hand as well. In a 9×11 bakers dish or similar Tupperware container, spread refried beans on bottom. Add salsa mixture on top. Note: if you use the salsa mixture the day you make it, it may be pungent from the onions and garlic. You can use caramelized onions and/or roasted garlic to make the taste milder. A day or two in the fridge will also mellow the salsa some as will using more tomato (add tomato paste or a little sugar if it is too strong for your liking). If you are going to use meat in your dish, put it in the third layer.
For guacamole, you can mash up some avocados by themselves or add a little tomato and a little salt and pepper with a dash of lime. Add guac to the meat or salsa layer. On top of guac, drop a tad of sour cream to cover. Shred queso fresco or cheese of choice on top. Sharp cheddar adds a distinct cheesy flavor where as queso fresco is much lighter.